My Map for Fatherhood

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They say a man begins his own death when his father passes away. 

Does he then begin a new life when his first child is born?

I’m a new Dad and my daughter is just three months old. I never expected her to transform the very essence of time: every moment is stamped with extra meaning and her rapid change spotlights the passing time. What a gift it is to be reminded that our lives are fleeting. It makes me cherish her so much more. She is so precious. 

I can’t believe that all parents experience this condition of love that I didn’t know existed. It might not be a secret, but you can’t know it, really know it, until you’ve experienced it.

It radiates from that part of me that has always been there. I feel it start just below my chest and it climbs through my shoulders, down my arms and up my neck until I smile in full radiance and my arms uncontrollably reach for a hug. At this point, my whole body teems with love and it invites her in close. 

I am on an emotional ride: one moment I dream of who she might become, and the next, I foolishly wish she never grows up. Fatherhood has taught me that I will be pulled savagely in all directions at once. 

In an instant her tiny smile brings me to tears. My fiancé catches me crying with my daughter in my arms so often that I’m starting to relish the care in her voice when she asks, “What’s wrong?” 

I always say, “Nothing.”

But it is far from nothing. How can I love this little human so much? 

I’ve seen people weep instantly when memories of recently lost loved ones flood their senses. The baby smiles and tears are just as moving but they are as different as life and death. The tears of memory are filled with longing and loss. The smile tears are filled with love and wonder. 

They flatten me all the same. 

When I’m overcome with smile tears, if I inspect them deeper, there is some fear tucked in behind the joy and wonder.  

What if I can’t do my part? What if I can’t be a good dad? What if I make a big mistake and she ends up hating me? What if I make a thousand too many mistakes? So many little mistakes that I could never remember them all or ever repair enough of them — as if I could locate each one —  to save her from the pain. A chasm between us created by forgotten mistakes that pushed us farther apart until nothing could span the void and bring us back together.

That would be heartbreak hell. I’d do anything to save me from the heartbreak of being hated by my child that I can’t help but love. 

Which brings us back to those smile tears. They’re here now, the tears. 

I’m laying horizontal on the couch. I decided to write this on my phone because the depth and meaning wouldn’t come at my desk. My cheeks are streaked with wet tears pooling on the pillow beneath my head. My throat is tight and I’ve swallowed three marbles that won’t go up or down. 

And every time this feeling comes, like waves on the shore, I let its power wash over me. I don’t diminish it, speed through it, or ignore it. I marvel in it with my full existence.

Those tears are many things. Varied feelings of wonder and joy, fear and worry. But above all, they are love. 

Unconditional love. And if I can keep that feeling front and center, and never lose it in the milieu of this life — between life and death — I reckon I stand the best chance of raising a wholesome, loving daughter.

I will know when to let things be and let her forge her own path. I will know when I am needed to guide, to protect, to encourage. 

And when I get it wrong, if I can keep that ember of love warming my heart, I will return to the right path. The emotions will guide me. 

She will never know how unconditionally loved she is until she has her first child, and in an instant she too will be moved to tears by tiny smiles. 

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Dave Shepherd

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